More Thoughts on the End of Mass Effect 3

Let’s play a little logic game with changing the ending to Mass Effect 3. The prevailing winds seem to be blowing the idea that Shepard was indoctrinated when Harbinger lazed him or her at the bottom of the beam to the Citadel and the rest of the game was merely the Commander’s internal struggle against it.

That’s fine as far as it goes though normally I despise the “it was just a dream” ploy as a cop-out of the highest order. Many have suggested that the best possible thing for BioWare to do would be to release an expansion pack that lets Shep “wake up” and then have an epic space and ground battle between the Reapers and the galactic fleet, not destroying the mass relays and most certainly, definitely not having the Normandy en route to god only knows where before the fight truly began.

While I’d love to see such a battle, it removes Shepard from the playing field and relegates our champion, savior of the galaxy, to the cheerleading squad. Considering how difficult it was for the ground team to take out one reaper on the way to the beam, I hold out little hope of such a war being won by humanity.

It might not be such a bad thing for the Reapers to win, storywise, but I play Mass Effect to save the galaxy, not to let those giant, sentient tin cans kill the lot of us after some rather disturbing hallucinations because it turns out I’m not so epic after all, despite all evidence to the contrary. I certainly don’t play to be Joker for the big finish and we all know Shepard can’t fly anything more complicated than a taxi.

For me, the problem with the existing ending has two dimensions. The first time through I thought to myself, “Dang! Those Reapers actually have a reason for what they’re doing. They’re protecting the galaxy from their own technological prowess, something the capabilities of Geth and EDI argue may well be a necessity. Somewhere along the line some civilization got advanced enough to make the Reapers and set them in motion.”

Then I stopped and thought about their aim. The Reapers come from some dark space place to harvest all sentient species and make more of themselves, but only because they don’t want AIs to take over and destroy organic life. This makes a psychotic sort of sense, particularly as the Quarians stress how accidental their creation of AIs was in the first place and considering the reaction of those creatures when their makers tried to kill them.

The Protheans left a couple of VIs and Javik talks a little about a war with AIs that apparently ended at some point. However, the Geth and EDI already exist in Shepard’s cycle and those are only the ones about which we’re told. By the time of the big decision the organics of the Mass Effect universe are no longer fighting the AIs.

Either the Protheans won their war or the Reapers destroyed the AIs along with the other species they deemed well-enough developed. So if the Reapers follow through on their plan to eliminate all sentient species in the Mass Effect cycle that leaves the Geth, at minimum. Will the Reapers harvest them, as well, and make a Geth Reaper (now that’s downloadable content for which I would pay!) or will they run off with the organics and leave the AIs in charge?

The latter runs counter to the stated purpose of godboy at the end of Mass Effect 3. Of the three choices, only destroying all synthetics really solves that problem as explicitly stated. Even then it’s only a short-term solution until someone gets cute and accidentally makes some more Geth. At the very least it would be nice to be able to ask some questions before you act on one of your options.

  • “If I blend DNA do we all essentially become cyborgs or AIs, thus eliminating the concern about them taking over all life? Does the new DNA in plant and animal life give them self-awareness and intelligence or does it simply make them compatible with our new digestive needs? And will this new DNA make the Geth organic enough to breed or will they still essentially be mechs? Will it allow interspecies breeding, like the Asari do now, for everyone? And what about the mutated Reaper forces: will cannibals go back to be Batarians, for instance, or will we have these nasty new species as well as the old?”
  • “If I take control of the Reapers do I control all synthetics or is it just the big, laser-face guys? And if the latter what about the AIs that already exist? Won’t I just end up hunting them down in my brand new Reaper coat at some point in the future? Does controlling the Reapers include controlling anything indoctrinated, like Banshees and husks? If I control the Reapers can I just make them destroy themselves or each other?”
  • “Can I fire the Crucible at a ‘lower setting’ to fry all of the Reapers and AIs in this system or cluster (sorry, Joker) and leave the rest of the galaxy alone? Would that save the Mass Relays?”
  • “Can I decide you’re right and hurry this along? I hate the idea of everyone dying but your system has worked for hundreds of thousands of years. I just don’t want everyone to suffer and they’re not going to roll over and die just because I tell them to, even if I could reach everyone in the galaxy.”

Give Shepard a dialogue wheel to explore these choices more fully before she decides. Give the choice a context and longer-range consequences. Make the differences between the options clear.

That just leaves the Normandy question, the most serious dimension of ending fail. For me, what came after Shepard’s choice broke the epic of the game. I was willing to swallow godboy and his explanation if I had to and I certainly could understand Shepard being forced to sacrifice himself or herself to save the galaxy.

I could even buy the destruction of the relays as they spread the wave from the Crucible to the rest of the galaxy. That surely must happen if you’re to save all of the Reaper-invaded systems and the exploding relays made a wacky sort of internal sense. I found contemplating the results of that quite interesting.

But even if they knew Shepard was dead, even if they knew there was no hope, there’s no way the rest of the team would have abandoned the fight. Placing them mid-jump from a relay makes no sense. Why abandon the couple of dozen of them on a presumably-unoccupied but conveniently-compatible planet when they can’t possibly repopulate the thing by themselves without risking catastrophic inbreeding?

I love the last bit with Buzz Aldrin and the little boy but it needs to take place on Earth, perhaps with some identifiable ruins sticking up out of the vegetation that has reclaimed places where once humanity teemed. Banishing Shepard’s nearest and dearest was not a hopeful note struck after an epic ending. It was the demolition of their commitment to the same fight for which the Commander gave his or her life, the diminution of their belief in the Shepard and in the goal of the entire Mass Effect series.

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